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Vale Mary Oliver

The poet Mary Oliver died yesterday, aged 83. I’ve only blogged about one of her books, here, and didn’t say much about it. But every time I’ve read one of her poems – in a book lying around in a conference centre or picked from a friend’s bookshelf – she’s struck a nerve. Someone on Twitter begged the world not to straightwash her, so I’ll mention that she wrote sweet poems to her same-gender lovers.

I hope her estate will be OK with me sharing this, which was published i 2006, when she was the age I am now.

When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Year’s end

In Melbourne where the
jacarandas still flower
at December’s end

a pub in Carlton
promises European
yum cha on Sundays

With an afternoon to spare in Melbourne the Emerging Artist and I have drawn up our Best of 2016 lists.

Movies

Feature films (I saw 36, the EA slightly fewer)

The Emerging Artist’s top three: 

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch 2016): ‘A wonderful portrait of someone with a rich internal life integrated with normal functioning.’

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy 2015): ‘This was taut as a thriller and had new things to show about how the story of child sex abuse in the Boston Catholic Church was brought to light. A reflection on institutional power.’

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi 2016): ‘Made me laugh.’

My top 3:

I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach 2016): Some people have described this as relentlessly grim. I know what they mean, but what that description leaves out is its tremendous warmth.

One-eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando 1961): I saw this with my big brother more than five decades ago and didn’t understand his reverential tone. Seeing it again at this year’s Sydney Film Festival was a joy.

Rams (Grímur Hákonarson 2015): So bleak and bitter cold, and so full of humanity.

Documentaries (we saw 13):

The Emerging Artist’s top three: 

Constance on the Edge (Belinda Mason 2016): ‘Constance is a wonderful character. The film shows the trauma of war and its after effects, especially for women, once you’ve settled somewhere peaceful. The loss of cultural identity in the process of becoming a refugee and how hard to create a new one. Also, how the CWA is changing.’

Sonita (Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami 2015, seen at the Sydney Film Festival): ‘A most amazing film. Where did this young woman emerge from that she had the confidence to hold out against so many cultural taboos against singing, let alone rapping. She was exuberant and full of life.’

Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore 2015): ‘This is one of the best of MM’s films. It reminded me how much we’ve lost in Australia. It’s good to get a perspective on how other places do things differently from what we take for granted.’

My top three:

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week (Ron Howard 2016): I was in a monastery during the Beatles’ touring years; for me this was a surprisingly moving and explanatory visit to my contemporaries’ teenage years.

Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg 2016): Funny, tragic story about the devastating effects of a sexual compulsion.

Wide Open Sky (Lisa Nicol 2016): Michelle Leonard teaches music to children in remote and isolated northwest New South Wales. The movie follows four young people from audition to performance in her choir, and we learn an awful lot about music education, about being different in a small community, about discipline and expectations, about many kinds of big-heartedness.

Worst film of the year:

The Emerging Artist: Sunset Song (Terence Davies 2015, seen at the Sydney Film Festival): ‘It was just so bad. I don’t know where to begin. Where were the other women in the main character’s life? The lingering drone shot over the corpses was so terribly done with that shocking music behind it.’

Me: Up for Love / Un homme à la hauteur (Laurent Tirard 2016). I didn’t understand what many people in the audience were laughing at. Maybe it lost a lot in translation, or the idea of a very short man is irresistibly funny to some people, or (a kinder hypothesis) they were fans of the lead actor and were constantly amused by the trickery used to make him look short.

Theatre

DroversWife.jpgWe both picked The Drover’s Wife (written by Leah Purcell, directed by Leticia Cáceres at Belvoir Street): ‘Completely riveting, powerful theatre that worked on so many different levels, and Leah Purcell in the title role was stunning.’ I’d add that it worked beautiful variations on the Henry Lawson story of the same name, and played wonderfully with audience expectations by having an Aboriginal actor playing a character who has always been assumed to be non-Indigenous.

Books

Fiction:

The Emerging Artist’s top three:

The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert 2014): ‘Having hated Eat, Pray, Love, I picked this up with low expectations, but found myself enthralled by a story of mosses, scientific discovery and a woman out of her own time.’

Purity (Jonathan Franzen 2015): ‘Nothing much to say beyond that I really loved this.’

The Museum of Modern Love (Heather Rose 2016): ‘A fabulous find. An Australian author who is very daring: she approaches Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present from many point of view, and gets to the heart of what was happening in the piece both for the artist and for the people who sat with her. Equally interesting for people who know nothing abut Abramovic’s work.’

My top three (links are to my blog posts about them):

A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James 2015)
Fables Books 6–10 (Bill Willingham and others 2005–2008)
The Natural Way of Things (Charlotte Wood 2015)

Non-Fiction

The Emerging Artist’s top three: 

The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (Emma Sky 2015): ‘I heard Emma Sky at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The book is a detailed picture of life on the ground in Iraq after the invasion, and helps to make sense of the news stories.’

The Art of Time Travel (Tom Griffiths 2016): ‘This is a beautifully written story of how Australian history is still being discovered and is so different to what I was taught in school. It has inspired me to go on and read the historians he talks about, including Grace Karsken’s The Colony.’

Hope in the Dark (Rebecca Solnit 2004, 2016): ‘I’ve read this book maybe five times this year and each time it’s like getting another vaccination against bleakness.’

My top three:
Talking to My Country (Stan Grant 2016), especially as followed up by his Quarterly Essay, The Australian Dream
Missing Up
(Pam Brown 2016)
The Art of Time Travel (Tom Griffiths 2016)

I feel obliged to say that such ‘best of’ lists are pretty arbitrary. No sooner had I drawn up these lists than I was aware of so much joy and enlightenment that had been left off them.

Happy New Year, dear reader. May 2017 be filled with good things and victories against the forces of darkness, some perhaps decisive.

Limerick elegy

In honour of possibly the most loved tree in Sydney and scholars everywhere who worked for their higher degrees and never besmirched whole academic disciplines:

The old jacaranda has died.
It witnessed the senate decide
to give Howard, John
a PhD (Hon)
and died from the wound to its pride.

Click on the image if you need an explanation.

Cv5rwkcVIAATzQj.jpg

2013 in review (lazily)

Many good things happened in my life this year. Possibly the biggest was that Ngurrumbang, the short film whose screenplay I co-wrote with my elder son, was screened at three festivals in Australia and one in Europe, with Flickerfest still to come. But here are three relatively lazy looks at the year that’s just finishing.

One: The first sentence (or sometimes the first two sentences) of the first blog post for each month:

January: Whatever the ghost of Rembrandt might think about the state of Dutch art in the early 21st century the arrival of Florentijn Hofman’s magnum opus in Darling Harbour today was a hit, even after the seeming endless and mostly lame concert and tumbling act that preceded it.

February: I heard Paul Ham speak about this book [Hiroshima Nagasaki] at Gleebooks early last year.

March: Geoff Lemon, co-editor, was surely tempting fate and the critics when, as soon as the 32nd issue of Going Down Swinging was complete, he nicknamed the impending Nº 33 the Jesus Issue.

April: I recently heard a distinguished novelist claim that she grew up believing New South Wales was mostly settled peacefully and that damage to the original inhabitants was largely unintended, caused by infectious diseases and the like.

May: The launch of this book [Pam Brown’s Home by Dark] last weekend was a convivial affair in an Erskineville pub.

June: Sydney has Vivid. Wellington has Lux.

July: I was extremely lucky in the timing of my university studies. I started at Sydney Uni in 1967 when, because of an overhaul of the New South Wales school system, only a very small cohort had graduated from high school the year before.

August: After Karl Ove Knausgaard’s mountains of mundane detail, we wanted our next book to be one that spins a great yarn.

September: It’s about two and a half years since we moved home. About a year ago, the grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) that had stood outside our kitchen window in the old house was ailing in its new location – most of its fronds were brown or browning.

October: This book [Contemporary Asian Australian Poets edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill] seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing.

November: It’s November, and once again, while all over the world people with stamina take on NaNoWriMo, I’m setting myself the modest goal of 14 sonnets in the month – LoSoRhyMo (Local Sonnet Rhyming Month).

December: As Vagabond Press’s beautifully crafted Rare Objects series of chapbooks approaches its hundredth and final title, Jennifer Maiden makes her debut at Nº 95.

Two: Top Ten Movies (in no particular order)

Me The Art Student
Philomena (Stephen Frears) 1p
In Bob We Trust (Lynn-Maree Milburn)
130_ibwt
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
140_bj
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
140_swt
The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt)
1r
A Gun in Each Hand (Cesc Gay)
1geh
Twenty Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville)
140_20f
The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
136_past
What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee and David Siegel)140_wmk
The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)
140_a
No (Pablo Larrain)
140_no
Barbara (Christian Petzold)1barbara A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman)
140_p

Three: Notes on the year’s reading

Rather than single out some books as the best, let’s see how I went in reading diversely.

I’ve listed 63 books in my ‘Reading and Watching’ column. I didn’t finish at least five of them and quite a few were journals, not books at all. It looks as if I read 53 books as such.

  • 31 were by men, 22 by women
  • 6 were translations – two from Norwegian, one each from Bengali, Russian, German and Catalan
  • 32 were Australian
  • 24 were poetry books, including substantial anthologies as well as tiny chapbooks
  • 7 were Book Group books
  • not necessarily the best, but 3 books that enriched my sense of what Australia is were Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy, Noel Beddoe’s The Yalda Crossing and Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, the anthology edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill
  • the Art Student’s pick from her year’s reading were Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries and her crime fiction discovery, Martin Walker’s Bruno xx series.

That’s it. Happy New Year, all!

A parthian shot

The campaign to persuade the O’Farrell government to change its mind about precipitately withdrawing funding from fine art education in NSW TAFE has met with stony silence (if you don’t count the occasional statements by the premier about how he values art). When I saw the fact sheets on the coming changes to the TAFE system, I couldn’t resist:

art killed001

 

Fairy tales can come to U T S

My friend Sarah Gibson has asked me to mention this, and I’m happy to oblige:

20120907-231441.jpg

Fairy Tales Re-imagined: Enchantment, Beastly Tales and Dark Mothers

A symposium to be held on 13 October, at UTS, Sydney, exploring fairy tales and the cultural imagination. Writers, artists and academics speak about their fascination with fairy tales, their motifs, themes and layers of meaning. They discuss how old stories inspire and inhabit new forms.

Of the speakers listed, in my ignorance i only know three: Sarah, who is a bit of a fairy tale polymath, and Kate Forsyth and Margo Lanagan, both billed as novelists, though I passionately hope Margo hasn’t forsaken what some see as her true calling as a writer of short stories.

The symposium has been initiated by media artist Sarah Gibson, whose interactive online project ‘Re-enchantment’ can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/re-enchantment (link opens external site).

It sounds like a fun way to spend a windy October Saturday in Sydney. If you’re interested you can find information and register at http://fass.uts.edu.au/fairy tale-symposium.html, or email Sarah.

Luckily we’re not Victorians

We’re New South Welsh on an interstate trip. It seems to be safe for us, but we were alarmed by this headline in today’s Age:
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Waiting

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The year in review (lazily)

A handy blogging tradition which I got from Pete is to cut and paste the first line of the first post of each month of the year as a way to reflect briefly on 2010 without necessarily engaging the mind. So here goes:

January: I came out of  Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox wondering if I oughtn’t reconsider my devotion to the cinema.

February: Thanks to Antony Loewenstein for this, from Winter Soldier testimony in 2008.

March: It can’t be! Two full weeks since I blogged! I must have been busy.

April: We went this morning to what we’re told these days is even more popular with Australians than the beach or the footie – the art gallery.

May: One of my highlights of last year’s Sydney Writers Festival was Alleyway Honour in the Bankstown Town Hall.

June: Dennis Hopper does Rudyard Kipling … on the Johnny Cash show. (via Harriet the Blog)

July: Reading a book while walking is different from walking while wearing earphones.

August: This morning people in my house said to each other, ‘How about that wind?’

September: There are wordy conflagrations in Melbourne around about now that are sending occasional sparks up Sydney way.

October: Today is Arthur Boothroyd’s hundredth birthday.

November: Those who know about such things say the best introduction to Philip K Dick’s fiction is his short stories, especially ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’.

December: This book inspired two of my November blog sonnets, but that’s no reason not to give it a separate entry.

No mention of weddings, buying and selling houses, girlfriend transforming from harried consultant to blithe Art Student, etc etc etc. But there you have it. Happy New Year, all!

How to direct a movie

I subscribe to the podcast of Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film reviews on the BBC’s Radio 5 Mark and Simon being away on their summer holidays at the moment, their replacements, known as Floyd and Boyd, have been doing a sterling job. On Friday’s show they interviewed Stephen Frears and Tamsin Greig about the coming film Tamara Drewe, which they respectively directed and acted in. I loved this exchange:

Stephen Frears: There was this wonderful book written by Posy [Simmons]. There was Moira Buffini’s wonderful script. It was like, you know, robbing your kid’s bank. It was just a goldmine of jokes and funny things.
Floyd or Boyd: Now Tamsin, this is Stephen’s standard line – I’ve interviewed him once or twice before. His position basically is, Well, there’s this marvellous screenplay, then I came across these marvellous actors, like Tamsin Greig, then I just sort of turned up and they did it all really, while I just stood around. Now I’m guessing he probably has a little more input than that.
Tamsin Greig: It’s a little bit like — You know when you have a family gathering and there’s somebody there that everybody loves, and everybody trusts, and something just happens. Well, that’s the difference with Stephen Frears. When he’s not there, things don’t happen. But him just being there, and people trusting him, and having that relationship … I mean a lot of the crew have worked with him ten fifteen, twenty years or some more than that. There’s something palpable in the room, and you just get caught up in that. He just stands there and allows you, and so you do, and you never feel like a tit.

Yes, I know, from one point of view they were blowing smoke, but there’s something to it, just the same. It describes, for example, a good part of what I tried to do when editing the School Magazine: to allow the illustrators, editors and writers, so they did, and very rarely felt like tits.